The Grail Question

I am continually reminded of how “being humble” is one of the most important qualities to carry in myself (and I have not been a humble person most of my life!)  There seem to be so many false leaders in the spiritual community that wield their false authority on innocent people rather than enabling people to come to their own authority in their own way.

I am beginning to understand more deeply the story of Parcival.  It is listening for “the Grail question”, the question that asks the person to reveal what it is that is ailing the soul.  We live in a world where the question “What ails you” can no longer be literally spoken, at least most of the time.  Instead, it seems to require creating that place of safety that implicitly asks “what ails you”, in which a person in freedom can come to reveal their soul sickness on their own accord,  and find the path that enables them to heal themselves.

NVC Chapter 4: Identifying and Expressing Feelings

Measureless the starry heights
Measureless the depths of earth,
And about us everywhere
Light receiving, warmed by wonder,
Spirits weave man’s destiny.
May the shelter of this place
be a place of wakening
Peace within us, peace among us.
— Adam Bittleston

Wednesday we held our first “new” NVC meeting after a rather dramatic change to the format of the previous three meetings.  The previous meetings were facilitated, in the sense that a facilitator came to the workshop with a specific plan and exercises for each week.  After three meetings in this format, we realized that this format was not working for the group, and decided to change the format to a peer led direct study of Marshall Rosenberg’s book.  We picked up with the “homework” from our previous, facilitated, meeting, which was to read Chapter 4, Identifying and Expressing Feelings.  Because we had not yet covered observations in the first three facilitated meetings, we rather organically moved back to chapter 3, Observing Without Evaluating.  We quickly moved through the exercises at the end of chapter 3.

Driving back from Maine, my friend and I had put together a rough plan for yesterday’s meeting:

In alignment with the idea of Table Fellowship, I created a space in which we sat around a coffee table with various munchies: goat cheese, sliced apples and oranges, and of course, dark chocolate!

We opened with the lighting of a candle in the center of the table, the reading of the verse at the beginning of this post, and a brief check in by every person.  During this, it organically evolved to state that there is no particular “leader” or “facilitator” of the group, that we are all here to guide each other, and that anyone can suggest changes to the format of the meeting.  In individual discussions with the group, I also restated that we all felt that we wanted the group to be dynamic and organic—we would openly welcome new people if, in subsequent weeks, other people wanted to join the group for the chapter study.  Unlike the facilitated meetings of the past, the chapter study could easily accommodate people’s schedules, interests, and needs.

Borrowing from facilitated conversation techniques, my loose plan was to start with a discussion of what we objectively observed Marshal to be communicating in this chapter.  The second round of discussions would dive into our subjective response to what Marshal wrote, and we could bring up questions.  The third round was intended to work with some exercises regarding identifying and stating feelings.

This would be followed by a check out and a re-reading of the verse for closing.  Amusingly, I forgot to mention that we should plan on studying Chapter 5 for next week!

The meeting quite naturally ended up following this form, without explicitly having to “keep everyone on track.”  This was a wonderful indication that the process was really flowing for everyone.  In fact, near the end, it became natural to also start exploring needs and requests.

For my part, I came out of the meeting with a couple insights.  For the exercise portion, my friend suggested that we take an event (or events) from the day, state them as observations, and then state how we felt about them.  She requested that after a person made their observation and feeling about an event in the day, each person in the group mirrored the observation and feeling and then added their own feeling “response”.  This created a space where each person was heard with empathy.

The first insight I had was the importance of stating the observation before the feeling.  We played with both forms: observation followed by feeling and feeling followed by the observation.  I experienced much more openness when hearing an observation first, and then the person’s feeling.  Conversely, I experienced a closing down, especially when the feeling expressed was “negative”, when I heard the feeling first and then the observation that led to the feeling.  This is partly because I realized a common ground with another person when they describe an observation.  If the feeling is put first, I find myself concerned with “how am I responsible” and I’m much more closed to finding the common ground in the observation itself.

The second insight I had was in the importance of an empathy statement that stays in the “reflective space” rather than changing the focus to “I”.  This was jumping forward ahead of what we were focusing on, but it was an interesting to be really sensitive to stay just with a format like “when I hear you talking about…, I feel…”, rather than adding something to the effect of “and it reminds me of when I…”.  It actually takes effort to come to a hard stop at the end of “I feel”, and to get comfortable with the silence that ensues when I person feels heard, is contemplating that hearing, and may or may not say something further.

So, a very successful first peer-led NVC meeting!

Going Beyond Non-Violent Communication

The core of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is in the formula of communication that offers the opportunity for empathy and compassion.  This formula consists of four steps:

  1. Making an observation about the situation
  2. Discovering one’s feelings regarding what we observe
  3. Guided by our feelings, realizing what our needs are
  4. Communicating those needs as a request for action

When first practicing NVC, I was innately resistant to something about this formula.  Certainly, at first, I used the formula itself in a very stilted way until I became more creative with how to communicate observations, feelings, needs, and requests.  But even beyond that, I kept struggling with my discomfort, which I couldn’t identify, with this formula.  I was particularly bothered by how every feeling would result in a need that would then be verbalized as a request.  I started to feel dissatisfied—there was an angst regarding always going into the need/request space, but I couldn’t clearly identify why I was feeling that angst.

After my first NVC workshop, I started an over-the-phone study with a friend of mine, on Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now.  As I practiced “being present”, I started partitioning the NVC formula into past, present, and future.  The past consisted of the observation, the present consisted of my feelings and needs, the future was where my request lived.  The language of the NVC formula makes this partitioning clear, for example:

Past: “When I observed that the sink was full of dishes…”

Present: “I felt annoyed because I need consideration for the fact that this is a shared space…”

Future: “so would you be willing to have the kitchen clean before I get home?”

But on further reflection, I discovered an overlap of the observation into the present, and a projection of the need into the future.  So I started partitioning the NVC formula into a simpler twofold model:

Present: consisting of observations and feelings

Future: consisting of needs and requests

This helped me realize that my discomfort with the NVC formula was arising from a tension between living in the present, the “now”, and also projecting into the future with my needs and requests.  I began asking myself “why do I even need?”   In Tolle’s second book, A New Earth, I found this question and the underlying tension of the “need” space to be well articulated in Chapter 4:

“The ego cannot distinguish between a situation and its interpretation of and reaction to that situation.  You might say, ‘What a dreadful day,’ without realizing that the cold, the wind, and the rain or whatever condition you react to are not dreadful.  They are as they are.  What is dreadful is your reaction, your inner resistance to it, and the emotion that is created by that resistance.  In Shakespeare’s words, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’”

I realized that by going into the space of “needs”, I was creating a negative place.  If I need something, it means I lack something, and lacking something is usually a negative place.  It is a resistance to what is.  I also realized how the first two parts of the NVC formula, observing and feeling, are very much in the present and also very much in the domain of “non-thinking.”  Conversely, moving into needs and requests, I am moving out of the present and also into a “thinking” space.  I find it difficult to understand my needs without “thinking” about my feelings, and I certainly find it impossible to articulate a request without “thinking” about my needs.

This is anathema to the idea of living in the present for several reasons:

  • I’m creating a resistance, a negative place, by identifying a need.  The fact that I now have this need means that I have a resistance to simply what is.
  • I’ve moved from feeling to thinking, because I’m thinking about my needs and how to articulate them in a request.
  • I’ve moved out of the present and into the future, as exemplified by the language of the request “would you be willing…”

My experience of NVC is that it creates a conflict for me in that it takes me out of the present.  That is not to say that there are not definite times when a request, based on a need, must be made.  But the conflict clearly points out to me that not every feeling needs (pun intended) to result in a request.  It brings to light the question, when is it appropriate to make a request?  And even more deeply, why am I making a request—what is really at the root of the request that I believe must be made, because I am somehow dissatisfied with “what is.”

What I find myself doing instead is staying in the space of the observation and the feeling, and by not going into that negative, resistant space of needs, I discover that I can often come to peace with “what is”, no matter what that is.  It may take seconds, it may take days, but when I’m at peace, I don’t have to voice a need.  If, after giving the entire life situation the space to organically evolve, listening to other people and myself and allowing time to bring further clarity, I find myself still not able to live into “what is”, then this is a real indication that perhaps a request to satisfy a need is the best approach.

As Tolle (and I’m sure others) have said, there are three responses to a real situation in which action must be taken.  They are:

  • Accept the situation
  • Try to change the situation
  • Leave the situation

I’ve already reached the position that accepting the situation is not possible, which leaves me with trying to change the situation.  This is where the second have of NVC, the need/request half, comes most effectively into play.  But the pitfall, from my perspective, of the NVC formula, is to always go immediately into the “try to change the situation” rather than doing the hard work in first understanding my relationship to the issue, in order to see if I can first, simply accept the situation.